Could Requiring Students to Take the Citizenship Test Do More Harm than Good?

By Stephen Sawchuk — April 09, 2018 2 min read
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It’s the question raised by the National Council for the Social Studies in a newly released position statement, in which it encourages policymakers and teachers to consider other ways of measuring students’ grasp of civics and civics practices—possibly through portfolios or projects.

The group argues in the statement that the current trend of states adopting the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Naturalization Test threatens to reduce civics teaching to a set of discrete, easily memorized (and easily forgotten) set of civics facts, rather than promoting a more comprehensive view of civics education.

“Instruction should align with assessment; if the USCIS Naturalization Test becomes the cornerstone of civic literacy and the driving force in civic education reform for state and district education policymakers, the negative impact on instruction is likely to be significant,” it says.

Ultimately, the group says, civics education should not only include content knowledge, but also help students to embody the practices and dispositions that lead to civic engagement—such as discussing challenging issues and knowing how to solve problems within a democratic system of governance.

“What we don’t want to see happen is to see this test become the sole measure of civic literacy. It may have minimum benefits, but if we’re really talking about meaningful civics instruction, one test of minimal content knowledge is not a substitute for quality, rigorous K-12 learning,” said Lawrence Paska, the executive director of the NCSS.

About 17 states currently require students to take and/or pass the citizenship while in high school; more are considering the idea. States have adopted such policies largely as a result of a major push by the Civics Education Initiative, an advocacy group affiliated with the nonprofit Joe Foss Institute.

For their part, officials promoting the citizenship-test requirements have said that the exam should supplement, not detract from, the civics programming schools offer.

See also: A Call to Arms for Civics Education

What prompted this statement from the NCSS? It actually dates back to late 2016, when delegates within the NCSS’ internal governance structure passed a resolution expressing these concerns. it took another year and three months to draft the statement, Paska said.

The statement makes some recommendations for alternatives to the citizenship exam that, it says, would be less likely to influence instruction in unproductive ways. For example, it suggests that civics classes could lead to a final project, in which students must identify a problem or issue within their community and develop ways to address it.

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.